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15 August 2005

A leader I’d have followed

Robin Cook: a tribute

By David Marquand

Robin Cook’s untimely death is a political as well as a personal tragedy. To my great regret, I did not know him at all well, but even before his resignation over Blair’s ill-starred Iraq adventure, I admired him enormously from afar. In part, this was because of the extraordinary debating skill and forensic power that he showed in his marvellous indictment of the arms-to-Iraq affair and, more recently, in his dignified and passionate resignation statement. Yet there was more to it than that. In the ghastly jargon of the 1990s, he was plainly a moderniser, but he was a moderniser with a difference. He knew as well as anyone that the classic social democracy of the mid-20th century – the social democracy of my old heroes Tony Crosland, Roy Jenkins and Hugh Gaitskell – could not cope with the problems unleashed by the capitalist renaissance of the 1980s and 1990s; that by 1990 the revisionism of 1960 badly needed revising.

But he refused to imbibe the witches’ brew of sub-Thatcherite neoliberalism, sub-Marxist determinism, straight, old-fashioned Fabian bossiness and authoritarian populism that intoxicated Blair’s “new” Labour Party. He saw that the blinkered vision of modernity and the modern summed up in Blair’s famous cry “New, new, new, everything is new” was both crass and dan- gerous; that there are many routes to modernity, not one. I think he also saw that the real choice for social democracy now lies between the managerial, top-down modernisation of the Washington consensus and a humanistic, bottom-up alternative, drawing on the new pluralism developed by the social movements that led the resistance to the Thatcher counter-revolution.

Pluralism was the golden thread linking his commitment to parliamentary reform and elections to the House of Lords, his willingness to work with the Liberal Democrats, his support for proportional representation and his growing Europeanism. He once confessed that he was a Labour tribalist, but he realised that it was time to transcend tribalism. Unlike virtually all British politicians, he saw that the nationalist tribalism implicit in the Blair government’s arrogant disdain for the European social model makes it impossible for Britain to participate fully in the power-sharing and consensus-building that lie at the heart of the European project. Unlike most leading Labour politicians, he also realised that the archaic and increasingly bankrupt “Westminster model” of parliamentary government and the elective dictatorships it spawns are no longer compatible with social-democratic values, if they ever were: that social democracy cannot be forced down the throats of an unwilling society by executive fiat, but can only grow from the soil of an engaged citizenry.

There is no way of telling how far his pluralism would have gone if he had lived. What is certain is that the need for pluralistic checks and balances against Blair’s knee-jerk populism is becoming more acute with every passing day. There is a fine line between legitimate self-defence against terrorist atrocities and an illegitimate encroachment on the liberal values that the terrorists are hoping to uproot. In recent days, Blair has crossed that line, in words if not yet in deeds. By themselves, conventional politicians, playing by the well-worn rules of the Westminster game, cannot stop him from turning words into deeds.

There is now a desperate need for what Ben Pimlott once called a “popular front of the mind” – a cross-party (and non-party) movement of opinion to defend basic liberties and democratic principles, not just against the open enemies enrolled in the terrorist jihad, but against the false friends who cannot see that in undermining due process and respect for law they are doing the terrorists’ work for them. I like to think that, if Robin had lived, he would have become the rallying point for such a popular front. The rare combination of cool judgement and moral backbone which he showed during and after his resignation from the government made him ideally fitted for such a role. So did his brilliant, passionate, witty and uncompromisingly honest speech at the enthusiastic Compass conference in June. That his voice should have been stilled at a time when it was desperately needed is a terrible blow. I mourn him for the courage and integrity that shone like a candle in a murky night. I also mourn him as a leader I would have been proud to follow.

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‘Have we not made wars more likely by being so enthusiastic in supplying the combatants with the means?’
Robin Cook, 9 July 1976

‘For centuries old men have spent their retirement thinking up new ways for young men to die. They are still doing so’
Robin Cook, 19 November 1976

‘The US and Britain may have demonstrated they are powerful only to make themselves more insecure’
Robin Cook, 21 April 2003

‘We face a crisis of confidence in parliamentary democracy of which the plunge in electoral turnout is only one symptom’
Robin Cook, 19 May 2003

‘Cook is by far the most effective party warrior in the Commons . . . who regularly makes the eyes of Tory ministers water when he steps up to the despatch box’
Ian Aitken, “Why Robin Cook should lead Labour”, 3 June 1994